Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Human milk and the Handmaid's Tale

More from Australia on the discovery of stem cells in human milk. And again, as I noted in November 2011, the discovery, funded in part by breast pump maker Medela*, is framed as "a solution to the ethical dilemma of using human embryonic stem cells..." The article says the only way to obtain embryonic stem cells is to harvest them from a six-day-old human embryo, destroying a potential human life in the process. Researcher Foteini Hassiotou says:
"Whereas breast milk can be accessed non-invasively, there's plenty of it, you don't have to do any surgery."
Striking illustrations by Anna and Elena Balbusso
accompany a new Folio edition of Atwood's
The Handmaid's Tale - see the full series in
The Guardian, Jan 23, 2012 
This discovery is not a solution to an ethical dilemma - it offers an ethical tradeoff - replace the harvesting of stem cells from embryos with a harvest from mothers. Human milk is said to be a scarce resource as milk banks struggle to meet the increased demand for preemies, some of whom will die if they do not receive donor human milk. Where does stem cell research fit in the question of who should receive milk first when there isn't enough to meet the need?

Milksharing advocates dispute that human milk is a scare resource, saying instead it is a renewable, sustainable resource. They say mothers were dumping milk down the drain before milksharing started to thrive thanks to social networking. But will human milk remain abundantly available for babies if mothers are offered financial incentives to donate for stem cell harvesting?

Why does Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale keep flitting through my mind as I think about the ethics of harvesting breast milk from Twenty-Something moms in order to treat heart disease and diabetes - preventable, lifestyle illnesses that are about to swamp our healthcare system as the Baby Boomers age?
Sourcing stem cells from breast milk - Foteini Hassiotou › Meet a Scientist (ABC Science):
Stem cells discovered in human milk can turn into any kind of tissue, explains Dr Foteini Hassiotou.
By Abbie Thomas
Dr Foteini Hassiotou (University of Western Australia)

A solution to the ethical dilemma of using human embryonic stem cells to treat human diseases could be staring us in the face.
Five years ago, Dr Foteini Hassiotou was part of a research team, the Hartmann Human Lactation Research Group at the University of Western Australia, which discovered that human breast milk contains what appear to be stem cells. These cells can potentially turn into many different types of cells, and offer staggering potential for treating a huge range of human diseases....
*Note: This post builds on a blog post written in November 2011 about Medela's funding of this breastmilk/stem cell research, and was edited in November 2012 to make explicit Medela's involvement in funding this research.